Perhaps it was inevitable that after a generational player such as Johnny Sexton moved into retirement he would leave something of a void.
Even so, never in the 29 seasons of professionalism has Irish rugby been faced with such a vacuum at outhalf.
Since the 1995 World Cup, the baton has essentially been passed between just four players, who have sometimes overlapped or, in the case of Ronan O’Gara and Sexton, have in turn held the position down pretty much by themselves.
By concentrating solely on the 29 editions of the Five/Six Nations and the eight World Cups since 1995, we can draw a clearer picture of this quartet’s crucial importance to the Irish team.
Of the 178 competitive Test matches Ireland have played in the Championship and World Cup since the 1995 tournament in South Africa, Eric Elwood, David Humphreys, O’Gara and Sexton have started a whopping 164 of them.
That equates to 92% of those 178 Tests.
Elwood started all but one of Ireland’s games in the 1995 World Cup, the exception being when Paul Burke started the pool win over Japan. Humphreys started three of the 1996 Five Nations games, and vied with Elwood for the outhalf slot over the ensuing five years.
After O’Gara made his debut in the second game of the Six Nations against Italy in 2000, he and Humphreys were rivals for seven seasons, before O’Gara carried the responsibility on his own for a further four seasons.
Indeed, from the start of the 2004 Six Nations until Sexton started his first Championship game in the win against England at Twickenham in 2010, O’Gara started the 36 consecutive Tests which Ireland played in the Championship and 2007 World Cup, a run that will never be repeated.
The duo had a compelling duel for the Irish 10 jersey over the course of the next four seasons, although for some reason their rivalry seemed considerably longer than that.
However, after O’Gara bowed out at the end of the 2012-13 season, Sexton has effectively been Ireland’s first-choice outhalf ever since. Between the pair of them, they have started 111 of Ireland’s 124 matches in the Six Nations since the 2003 World Cup, equating to almost 90%.
Since Paddy Jackson broke into the Irish team in the 2013 Six Nations, another half dozen players have worn 10 in either the Six Nations or the World Cup.
Jackson started five Championship games, three in 2013 and two in 2017. Ian Keatley started the 2015 win in Rome. Ian Madigan started two at the 2015 World Cup and Jack Carty started one in 2019 against Japan. Billy Burns started one Six Nations game in 2021, Joey Carbery started two in 2022 and Ross Byrne started one last year.
Ireland won five of those Tests, four against Italy and one against Romania, drew one and lost seven – against Italy, Scotland (twice), New Zealand, France (twice) and Japan.
It’s often thought that Ireland have had a deep stock of outhalves but, not unlike tighthead, the truth is they have been indebted to the durability, longevity and ability of an elite few, and specifically the trio of Humphreys, O’Gara and Sexton over the last 24 years – with a nod to the IRFU’s player management.
Save for Sexton’s two-year sojourn in Racing 92, they spent their entire careers with their home province. Humphreys played Test rugby until he was 34, O’Gara until almost 36 and, at 38, Sexton became Ireland’s oldest player in history at this year’s World Cup.
At the start of each of the last six World Cup cycles, one or two of the aforementioned trio – Humphreys, O’Gara and Sexton – have been the established occupants of, or contestants for, that 10 jersey.
Not so now.
Time was when Jackson or Carbery appeared to be the anointed heirs to the throne, but neither career has panned out as anticipated or hoped. Jackson remains in exile and Carbery has suffered another ill-timed injury to rule him out of the Sexton Succession Stakes.
As a window of opportunity opened, so it has probably closed for the time being for Ross Byrne, who would have been on the front of the grid alongside Jack Crowley but for the suspected torn bicep which may well sideline him until during the 2024 Six Nations.
If we’ve learned one thing from the careers of Messrs Humphreys, O’Gara and Sexton, outhalf is a position where players often produce their best rugby in their 30s. But of the other outhalves who have been capped at Test level, the talented duo of Carty and Burns have fallen down the pecking order and seemingly out of consideration barring compelling evidence of a newfound consistency.
While JJ Hanrahan always had the talent, and looks to be discovering an inner contentment which may well be reflected in his rugby, the same probably applies to him.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a host of talented young outhalves but Sam Prendergast, Jake Flannery, Tony Butler and co need more game time.
All of which further points to this being a continuation of Crowley’s time, even if the 23-year-old has only started three Tests. On foot of an assured full Test debut at short notice in the win over Australia in November 2021 and helping Munster to their breakthrough URC triumph, he started the warm-up wins over Samoa and Italy, and played in three World Cup games off the bench.
He must have learned plenty from watching and listening to Sexton and has carried his form into this season. Crowley has a nicely varied kicking, running and passing game, as well as deft footwork and is physical, even being prepared to compete in the jackal.
Crowley now looks an even shorter odds-on bet to start Ireland’s Six Nations opener in 10 weeks’ time in Marseille on February 2nd.
Byrne’s misfortune also looks like opening the door to a place on the bench against France for his younger brother Harry (24), with one cap off the bench against the USA in July 2021, and the 25-year-old Ciaran Frawley, whose one cap was as a half-time replacement in the warm-up win over Italy last August.
Both are talented, both have been in the Irish set-up and, but for injury, both would probably have made more strides by now. But, no less than Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell will want Crowley to stay healthy.
We’re moving into very new territory now.